As a Reading resident, Oxford is practically on my door step. I have often visited the city for nights out, concerts and walking tours. There has usually been a specific reason though, so I haven’t had the chance to fully explore the city. Recently, I had some concert tickets booked so decided to make the most of the situation. We booked a hotel for the night to enjoy a leisurely break. We arrived to Oxford on the train late morning on a Saturday and headed to our hotel to drop off bags, before heading out to explore for the day. Famed for its colleges, universities and stunning architecture, there is something for everyone in this city. For fans of the arts, architecture, shopping and nightlife, the city is a vibrant hub where history meets the modern day. Here are my recommendations for a perfect weekend in Oxford.
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A weekend in Oxford – Day One
Explore the Oxford Castle Quarter
Our hotel was located near the railway station, so from here our first stop was the Oxford Castle Quarter. The history of this area dates back ten centuries, since when it has served as a Royal Castle, a centre of justice and most famously as the Oxford Gaol for several hundred years. Having been extensively redeveloped after the prison closed in 1996, the site is now home to a hotel within the prison walls (more about that later) as well a string of restaurants and bars. There is also a visitor attraction – Oxford Castle – Unlocked, an interactive journey through the history of the building. Outside of the castle, you can climb the Norman Castle Mound which was built in 1071. Climbing to the top of the mound offers panoramic views across the city where you can look out for some of Oxford’s landmark buildings and spires.
Take a stroll through Oxford Covered Market
In the centre of the city, within a building dating back to 1770’s, is the charming Oxford Covered Market. Take a wander through the thoroughfares, past stalls and kiosks packed with produce from local suppliers. Whether it’s food, drink, flowers or gifts, there is something for everyone. You may want to stop by The Cake Shop to grab a sweet treat, or simply to watch these talented artists creating wonderful cake creations. If you want to rest your feet, stop by Colombia Coffee Roasters for coffee and cake at this lovely little independent artisan coffee shop.
Visit the colleges
Wandering around Oxford city centre, you are not going to get very far without seeing some of the stunning buildings that make up the universities and colleges of the city. Guided tours are available at certain times where you can access the college buildings, but if you are short on time you can still admire the buildings and grounds without entering. Notable buildings to stop by are Trinity College, Lincoln College, All Souls College and Magdalen College.
One of the main colleges you absolutely should not miss is Christchurch College, especially if you are a Harry Potter fan. As well as the absolutely stunning Cathedral you’ll want to make sure that you can visit the Great Hall which is the inspiration for the Great Hall of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. We tried twice to visit the Great Hall, unsuccessfully the first time due to a function, but on our second visit we managed to get access and it was magnificent. The grounds of Christchurch are absolutely stunning too. If you plan to visit, be sure to check the website for opening times of the various areas you will want to see.
Stop for a drink
If you spend a weekend in Oxford, all the walking that you do will definitely build up a thirst. Thankfully, there are plenty of great bars and old pubs to check out along the way. First on the list should always be the Turf Tavern. It’s become something of a pilgrimage on our trips to Oxford. A historic pub dating back to the 1380’s, it’s well hidden down some alleyways. You need to really search it out, but it’s worthwhile. A cosy pub, with low beamed ceilings and a large outdoor seating area, it’s a hub for students, locals and tourists alike. Another traditional boozer worth checking out is the The Three Goats Heads on St. Michael’s Street. It’s located in a beautiful building, and decorated in traditional wood panelling.
For something a little different, head back to the Covered Market entrance on High Street and head to The Varsity Club. Set over four stories, combining traditional and contemporary decor, it has a cocktail bar, restaurant, dance club and a rooftop bar. We headed to the rooftop bar for an afternoon drink. It’s a great spot to sit above the city and take in the views.
Venture out to the suburbs
One thing about weekends (and particularly Saturdays) in Oxford, is that it gets really busy. Being a university city and a huge tourist destination, it’s fair to say that this isn’t always a relaxing city to wander through. To take a break from the city centre crowds, its worth venturing further afield to the suburbs. I would recommend a walk out to the Jericho suburb, which takes about 15 minutes from the city centre. A vibrant area packed full of pubs, bars and restaurants, it has a really cool vibe. The walk from the centre along Walton Street takes you past the stunning Oxford University Press buildings.
Little Clarendon Street is great spot to grab a drink or some food. The Duke of Cambridge is a great little pub, and we had an excellent meal of delicious tapas at Al-Andalus. Other notable drinking establishments are Jude the Obscure, The Jericho Tavern and FREVD – a cocktail bar in a converted church.
Check out some live music
As previously mentioned, the purpose of this visit was for a gig. Oxford is a great town for music. While it doesn’t have a large arena venue, there are lots of small to mid size venues. The O2 Academy Oxford (formerly the beloved Oxford Zodiac) is the main gig venue of the city, but for a smaller and more intimate gig experience, The Jericho Tavern is a great place to see live music. I’ve seen many of my favourite acts in Oxford over the years so this city’s gig venues hold a place in my heart.
A weekend in Oxford – Day Two
Start the day with a good breakfast
The most important meal of the day, so they say. It’s always important to do some research and find a decent breakfast place, unless this is included in your hotel rate. We lucked on our weekend in Oxford, as directly across the road was the perfect little breakfast venue. The Jam Factory is the place where the original Frank Cooper Marmalade was produced between 1903 and 1958. The building was renovated and reopened in 2006 as a restaurant, bar and art gallery space. It’s a really beautiful, light and airy space and they serve only free-range and local produce. The breakfast was awesome and it was a lovely setting.
Explore the top tourist spots on a Sunday morning
The best time to get out and about during the weekend in Oxford, is a Sunday morning, before the tourists and shoppers descend on the city. The shops open later, so the city centre is much quieter until about 11am. This provides the perfect opportunity to see some of Oxford’s most famous and beautiful landmarks.
As one of the world’s oldest libraries, the Bodleian Library opened in 1602 and has been one of the University of Oxford’s working libraries since. There are 28 libraries in total that make up the Bodleian, but the main library building located on Catte Street is stunning. Heading into the Old Schools Quad through the Great Gate, you can marvel at the stunning architecture of this building
Heading out of the south entrance of the Old Schools Quad of the Bodleian Library brings you out into Radcliffe Square, with a view of my favourite building in Oxford – the Radcliffe Camera. A beautiful, circular building adorned with columns and a domed roof – the third largest in Britain, it is truly stunning. Built between 1737 and 1749, it has been a ‘camera’ (which means ‘reading room’) since 1860. The only way to see the inside of the Radcliffe Camera as a non-member is by taking part in an extended tour of the Bodleian Library. For me, just walking around this iconic landmark and admiring it from the outside is satisfying enough.
Bridge of Sighs
If you have seen photos of Oxford, you are likely to have seen images of the Hertford Bridge. Also known as Bridge of Sighs, it connects the old and new quadrangles of Hertford College and crosses New College Lane. This, by the way, is where you will find St. Helen’s Passage which leads to the Turf Tavern. The bridge was completed in 1914 and is a very popular tourist hot spot, which is why a Sunday morning is the perfect time to visit.
Climb a tower for amazing views
To the south of the Radcliffe Camera, stands the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, where visitors are welcome to explore and take some reflection time wandering around the aisles, admiring the beauty of this building.
It is also possible to climb the tower – the oldest part of the building dating back to 1280, which offers spectacular views of the city and Radcliffe Square. The tower is open to visitors from 9.30am Monday to Saturday and from 11.30am on Sunday. During busy times a queue will form as there is limited capacity. Access to the tower is via a medieval, steep and narrow spiral staircase. At busy periods, there are passing places on the stairs, but if you are not a fan of confined spaces I wouldn’t recommend it. Once you make it up to the top, the views are breathtaking and very worthwhile.
While you are at the church, be sure to stop off in the Vaults & Garden Cafe set within the beautiful vaults. They serve organic, freshly produced and locally sourced dishes, and great coffee and cake.
Explore the quieter streets and alleyways
If like me, you are a little obsessive about guide books and seeking out all the visitor attractions in an area, take a step back. Oxford is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways that should be explored. Your guide book may not tell you there is anything worth seeing, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find a beautiful and scenic part of the city to explore. If you find an open archway or large doorway, pop your head in. You never know what you might find on the other side.
Where to stay during your weekend in Oxford
Royal Oxford Hotel
There are a large number of hotels in Oxford city centre, which have varying price ranges. It’s fair to say that during my hotel search, the prices were fairly high in general. We opted to stay at the Royal Oxford Hotel on Park End Street. This is a located directly in between the railway station and city centre, meaning that it worked really well for us. A 3 star hotel in a historic building, it was clean, modern and functional. The hotel has a breakfast room, but no restaurant.
There seemed to be a large restaurant area which was out of use, but I’m not sure if this was to be renovated or if it had closed down. I wouldn’t choose this hotel as a ‘treat’ weekend away, but it was really nice and perfectly acceptable as a base for exploring the city over a weekend. Prices during our stay on a Saturday night were £160 per night, room only. To check reviews and price comparisons on this hotel, click here.
For a treat hotel, however, I would recommend the Malmaison Oxford. Malmaison are a chain of 15 boutique hotels, usually located in interesting or historic buildings. The Malmaison Oxford takes this to another level as it is located within the old Oxford Prison building. With 95 rooms and suites, many of which are housed in the converted cells of the main cell block this really is a ‘destination’ hotel worth experiencing. Opening a large heavy cell door to enter you room, with the natural lighting coming only from narrow windows high up in the walls, it really creates an enticing hotel experience. The main wing of the cell block, complete with metal stairways and gantries still stands today. It’s a stunning building and an amazing experience. To check reviews and price comparisons on this hotel, click here.
That sums up my perfect weekend in Oxford. It’s such a beautiful city, with so much going on. Have you visited the city? What are your recommendations?
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